Kayak Rolling Instruction-What Works for You?

Eskimo Roll

As the kayak pool session has progressed with the students, each of them has become curious about an eskimo roll. We had one dedicated rolling lesson last saturday with 10 students. A few came close to rolling, some were closer than others to getting the concepts.

Rolling, in my opinion is a basic or a gateway skill that allows you to progress on to other skills. Knowing how to right your kayak without fear is a big confidence builder and can really increase your ability to edge, lean and try different strokes.

So here’s the question for instructors: What works for you?

Share it here in the comments, whether it’s traditional style paddle, pawlata style roll, paddle-float training wheels approach or some sort of voodoo doll. I’d love to hear what the approach is for coaches to teaching a really important, but albeit tricky skill.

Students can be afraid of the water, entrapment, or just have general anxiety about working with a coach. How do you work on overcoming these issues with the student?

If you have videos, or photos send them along and I’ll add them.


  1. Hi all…just reading up on rolls in general and viewed this thread. Quick question for you….can you roll without your paddle? I. E if you have dropped your paddle is the only option to exit?

    • Tom, Thanks for the comment. I can roll without my paddle. I have lost my paddle in surf and then hand rolled up. It is sexy as hell, but presents a "now what" scenario that makes it pretty useless. Because you have to recover your paddle before getting knocked over again. Best bet is to not lose your paddle. And in my case where this happened, I ended up swimming even after rolling up with no paddle.

      good question.

      Keith Wikle

  2. A lot of you are cursing the paddle float as a necessary evil in teaching the roll. The main concern seems to be how it interferes with “feeling” the proper blade angle. Have you ever made a paddle float using a flat sheet or flat block of foam? The simple method is to duct tape a sheet of closed cell foam around the blade. More elaborate is to carve a more realistic shape from minicell and attach it to your blade. Either way, the student can feel their blade angle. You can have a set of progessively thinner ones to reduce buoyancy as their technique improves.
    Good luck!

    Mark Lewis – Guide Instructor
    Sea Quest Kayak Tours http://www.sea-quest-kayak.com

  3. I’m not an instructor, and still consider myself to be in the learning stages. In my case, I’ve got the right side roll working reasonably reliably. The left side is a different story. What’s the difference? I’ll take you through my situation.

    I go over, no setup. If I’m not yet locked in (toes on foot pegs, knees under thigh braces), I do so now. Then I lean forward to the right. My left hand is holding the paddle near the blade, about the hip, with the blade above the water, resting on the bottom of the boat. The right hand is holding the shaft at the usual point, but I am extending my right arm forward, and turning the blade so that it has a climbing angle, just below the water surface. Then I initiate the sweep of the right side to the rear, concentrating on using my body to twist towards the back, and keeping the climbing angle on the blade. As the blade moved to the beam position, I push up with the right knee/leg, and turn my head to follow the tip of the blade (and keep my head from coming up too fast). As the sweep to the right continues, my right blade is still near the surface of the water, the boat has rotated about 90 degrees, most of my left side is out of the water, and my right knee is still pushing up against the thigh brace. My body is lying partly on the rear right deck. As the sweep reaches the 135 degree mark, the boat’s rotated upright, my body’s leaning backwards, head on right shoulder still watching the blade, with the right blade now starting to push down as I prepare to lean forward. Then I lean forward and the left blade is already reaching towards the toes for initiating the stroke.

    Now, when I try to do exactly the same on the left side, it all falls apart, starting at the underwater lean to the left side. The right hand holding the blade at the side of the boat out of the water, is fine, but the left hand has a poor feel for where the blade is to get the climbing angle. As well, I can’t seem to lean forward on the left side as far as on the right. As I initiate the sweep to the left, my left hand just cannot sense where the blade is in relation to the surface, and usually at this point the blade dives. When I am able to keep it near the surface, the initiation of the roll with the left knee is much more jerky than with the right, so rather than starting the roll up when the left blade is abeam (90 degrees), it starts either too early or too late.

    It seems that my right hand “feels” the water, and reacts accordingly, whereas my left is almost completely insensitive and does not make the fine corrections needed to keep the blade at the right orientation. So this winter’s pool practice is to work on my left side with the paddle float, trying to teach the left hand to feel the water. I am also trying the make the left-side sweep more smooth and coordinated with the knee lift. I’ve never had such a difference between the left and right sides in any other activity, so I’m a little mystified how the two sides seem to be belonging to completely different bodies, in terms of their response to the kinetic clues.

    As I mentioned earlier, I am able to scull up on both sides, but less reliably on the left. Again, the issue seems to be that my left hand is much less sensitive to the blade position and therefore, I lose the climbing angle on the blade much more easily on the left.

    As an alternative, I’ve been working with the high brace on the left side, and as long as the movements are relatively coarse, getting myself upright with a strong downward trust of the left paddle works fine. However, let’s say that I want to use a supporting scull on the left side, and while sculling, I rotate the boat to the left until I’m almost completely under water. At this point, as long as I’m able to maintain the support from the scull, I can rotate myself back up by using the left leg/knee. Where this maneuver often fails is that the left hand loses the feel for the blade position, and the blade dives. Now I’m totally inverted. Sometimes, I can recover by re-acquiring the blade angle, and the scull support, and then I’m usually able to come up on the left, but if I can’t get the grip, then the only way is to switch sides and scull up (or sweep up) on the right.

    As you can probably tell, I’m very comfortable under water with nose plugs and swim goggles. These were important for me when I was learning, because the goggles allowed me to see where the blade was and to correct the position if it was not right. Once my hand acquired the muscle memory of the right positioning of the blade, I can do this part with my eyes closed. The nose plugs help in that you can take your time to set up your position – otherwise your sinuses get filled up with water and you’re focusing on THAT unpleasant feeling rather than the cool, collected focus on blade and body position. Now that I KNOW I can roll reliably on the right, I’ve gone over without aids lots of time, and avoid getting water in my sinuses by exhaling while rolling up.

    So my thoughts, based on a data point of one, is that you need to make sure that the student is comfortable under water. That means goggles and nose plugs, or a full face mask. Second, until the student learns how to feel the water with the leading blade, the rest of the exercise is pretty futile. On the other hand, trying to learn this “feel” while keeping track of the various other bits and pieces (head, offside arm, on-side and off-side legs/knees) if difficult. So…Using the paddle-float there allows the student to focus on the right sweep movement without having to worry about the blade diving. Body positioning at setup, keeping the off-side hand above as an anchor point, coordinating the knee lift with the right point on the sweep arc, and remembering to keep the head down until the arc is complete, is enough coordination learning without worrying about blade position. Once the sweep motion, and associated coordinated movements are well ingrained, then reducing the support from the paddle float forces the student to pay more and more attention to the leading blade positioning.

    Sorry about the long-winded post, but I am thinking that the difference between my left and right side learning may help others see what they have to do.

  4. I should also say that my success rate so far has been about 50%. I wasn’t able to get half of the students to roll without the paddle float.

  5. My favorite method is to have Keith take the student through the basics, then give them to me immediately before the student nails their first roll. It’s very confidence building for my teaching abilities.

    Actually, after teaching only a few people, I’m going to say that the dreaded paddle float’s primary usage should be for the teaching of rolling. It has been the best way for students to groove the sweep and high brace motions. I’m finding that I can’t talk some people through the ‘sweep’ and ‘snap’, because they can’t form a mental image of the positions involved, until they spend sufficient time upside down and reaching for the surface. The paddle float allows them to go through the motions, without constantly bailing out of the boat because they fail the roll (due to a diving paddle).

    Now, the tricky part for me seems to be getting rid of the damn paddle float. As an exercise, I’m having them work on gaining blade angle awareness, by sweeping the paddle back and forth and progressively leaning further on to it. I’m hoping that this translates into ditching the paddle float.

    Any thoughts?

  6. My impression from talking to lots of folks is that about 10% of students get a role in the first class. I get about 80% results. First, forget the C-C. I never use the term hip snap, and I explain from the out set that it is not possible to roll up a kayak. Physics defies one doing so. What is possible is to drag the boat under yourself and to maintain a posture that lets it right itself. Finally, I work backwards, starting the student in the upright position. It would take to long (and I do not have photos) to explain the details, but a relaxed student who is not afraid of water or being upside down usually rolls in about 20 minutes.

  7. I learned to roll a year ago, in the pool. I joined an experienced group of paddlers for their usual weekend practice session at the pool (during winter), and one of the paddlers invited me to show what I knew… Well, he had to use the “hand of God” to get me back up. So he had me start with a paddle float on the end of my Euro paddle, and he had me go through the motions of sweeping the paddle from the front to the back. Once he was satisfied with my motion, he had me go over (with nose plugs and swim goggles), had me set up, and guided the paddle through the arc. After a few practice sweeps, he let me do this unassisted. After this, he released some air from the paddle float, and had me go through the motions again… and again.. and again. When he saw me pulling my head out too early, he had me watch the tip of the paddle thoughout the sweep. After a while, he decided that I had the motions and it was time to do the real thing. Off came the float, and… I set up, swept the paddle, and rolled up. By the end of the first session, I rolled up about ten times, with a 50% success rate.

    The next pool session, he watched me start the rolls, and made a number of comments on my postitioning, setup, and timing of my head lift. After this, a was able to string together about a hundred rolls, with most succeeding on the first try.

    By the time summer came, I was feeling reasonably confident, with about 1,000 pool rolls “under my belt”. I tried rolling in a lake when the water was about 10 degrees C, and was able to do it, although it wasn’t very pleasant. The rest of the summer, I’d try to get at least five rolls in every outing. I’m in my late 50’s, and paddle for enjoyment, stress relief, and exercise. Rolling is not “fun” but something I do to be sure that I can self-rescue, as most of my paddling is solo.

    Since then, I’ve been concentrating on sculling up from an inverted position, and using a high brace to finish the recovery. This I can do from either side. I’m finding that my hamstrings are very tight, and my back is stiff and limited in mobility, so some of the rolls are quite difficult. However, the relatively simple sweep from front to back works for me pretty reliably.